Carol Kammen and Amy Wilson are preparing the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History for publication in early 2017 and invited me to update my entry on “Historic House Museums in the 21st Century” as well as contribute a couple new entries, including “Vision Statement.” Businesses and nonprofit organizations have been adopting vision and mission statements for the past two decades but drafting this encyclopedia entry gave me a chance to step back to look at its evolving history and see where they might be headed. Here’s what I submitted (and remember, while books have been written about this topic, I have to condense it into a short summary):
Vision Statement. A vision statement describes a business’ or non-profit organization’s long-term major goal or desired end state and directs the planning, implementation, and evaluation of its programs and activities. There are many definitions for vision statements, some that conflict with each other, but the consensus is that they describe an ambitious but achievable long-term goal (10-30 years ahead, beyond the term of the current board or tenure of the executive director); that the statement is clear, compelling, and short (about 25-50 words); and yet is sufficiently vague and abstract to be unaffected by typical economic cycles or social fads.
An often-cited example of a vision statement is found in John F. Kennedy’s address to Congress in 1961 on urgent national needs:
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.”
Kennedy, however, would not have identified this as a “vision statement,” a term that would become popular in the 1980s when businesses sought success through visionary leadership and an entrepreneurial spirit. Discovering the ingredients of an effective vision was elusive, however, because there was little agreement about its essential qualities and how it affects strategy. In the 1990s, the value of visionary leadership and vision statements came under increasing scrutiny, especially in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (1994) by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. They questioned the belief that vision statements by themselves made companies visionary and instead claimed that “creating a statement can be a helpful step in building a visionary company, but it is only one of thousands of steps in a never-ending process.” As an alternative, they recommended a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, which they nicknamed BHAG (pronounced as be-hag). This is a specific type of goal that is intended to drive forward momentum because it manifests the company’s ideology, requires a high level of commitment, and is clear and compelling.
During this same time, the mission statement, one of the key governing documents of non-profit organizations, also came under increased scrutiny. The core functions of collecting, preserving, and interpreting seemed to be an insufficient response to questions raised by funders and the public about the social impact and contributions of museums and historical societies. Laura Roberts, Lois Silverman, Harold Skramstad, Stephen Weil, and other leaders in the museum and history field began to question the adequacy of mission statements in providing strategic direction or addressing community needs. Roberts felt that the mission of education was being neglected, Silverman suggested that museums could play a role in therapy and social work, Skramstad urged that mission statements needed to answer “so what?”, and Weil predicted a new relationship between museums and the public, which will have “revolved a full 180 degrees” with the public in the superior position. Some museums and historical societies responded to these critiques by either expanding their mission statements to incorporate an ultimate goal (e.g., to encourage appreciation, to inspire commitment, to be a vital resource) or crafting a separate vision statement.
By 2001, Jim Collins refined his ideas in his bestseller Good to Great, introducing the Hedgehog Concept to identify the three elements that must be addressed in effective vision statements: what are your deepest passions (which includes mission and values), what will make you the best in the world, and what drives your economic engine. When the three elements overlap, they form the Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Evaluation consultant Randi Korn adapted the Hedgehog Concept to the museum field by encouraging the practice of holistic intentionality, which clarifies what the museum wants to achieve and results in a “genuine, shared vision held by everyone because it passionately expresses the impact the museum hopes to attain.” At the core is an “impact statement,” which is a form of vision statement that integrates personal passion, the organization’s strengths and capabilities (which includes the collections and staff), and the audience’s interests and needs (relevance). Indeed, this follows a shift throughout the field from inward-looking vision statements (goals that are primarily important to or cause a change within the institution, such as becoming the region’s best museum, having the finest collections, reaching one million visitors) towards versions that are outward-focused (goals that are primarily important to or cause a change in external audiences, such as a creating connections across neighborhoods, providing a common place to discuss contemporary issues, ensuring students develop critical skills for employment).
What do you think? Anything missing or unclear? Share your thoughts in the comments below. And because vision statements are as difficult to write as mission statements, if you’ve developed some that could be an example to others, please share them, too.